All the coolest research says making small progress on the way to a big goal makes us happier than actually reaching the goal.
When we reach those stepping stone mini-goals, our brain rewards us with a quick hit of dopamine. In case you’re not up on your neurotransmitters, dopamine is the bringer of pleasure and reward; kind of like a jolt of joy. When you get take a toke of dopamine, you know it.
But when we reach the big goal in the end we don’t get stoned on dopamine in the same way. In fact, a completely different part of the brain is in play then. We get a release in prefrontal cortex activity which feels more like relief than pleasure or excitement.
Maybe you’ve experienced this. Knowing you’re-on-your-way and you’re-getting-closer and its –really-going-to-happen are awesome. You grow more and more excited by the day because you’re getting closer and closer.
Actually crossing the finish line is awesome too—for a few minutes. Then you’re mind goes to “Thank God it’s over” or “This is it?” or “What’s next?”
You get excited over getting an A on an exam but getting the actual degree is anti-climatic. Or you’re so excited to get engaged and nail down details for your dream wedding, but signing the marriage certificate is no big whoop.
So if the journey—not the destination—is really where it’s at, why do we sometimes get so antsy on the journey? Instead of enjoying the dopamine buzz and letting that motivate us to meet more mini-goals, we sometimes question the end goal altogether. We worry, wonder if we’ll ever really make it, freak out over one little setback (in case you missed this one from last year, here’s how change actually looks. Setbacks are part of the process).
The big thing that determines whether we can chill out and enjoy the ride vs. whether we worry all the way to the bank is simple: How much we actually believe we’ll make it to the end.
When the end is in question (in our minds, anyway), we have a harder time enjoying the steps on the way because…omg….what if we FAIL?!?
What if the end state never comes? Then we’d be crazy to be happy along the way. If you’re not absolutely sure you’ll get that degree or that the guy will actually show up at the alter, it’s a whole different ballgame.
For many of my clients who are deep into changing old patterns or aspects of themselves, they’re so used to their old ways that they have a hard time really believing they will change. When that’s the case, any minor setback is a nightmare threatening to take away their end goal dream. And those dopamine hits from the small successes along the way just aren’t enough. They quickly dismiss those successes as “not there yet”. They kill their own buzz, basically.
When you have faith that your end goal will come to be, you get to enjoy your small successes much more. They remind you of what you’re headed toward, not what you might miss out on.
Is there a moral to this story? Yes, in fact there are a few:
Enjoy your natural highs when you get them. Milk them for all they’re worth, knowing that the journey is the destination, in terms of feel good anyway.
Small successes are showing you that you’re on the right path. The same is not true of small setbacks, however. Setbacks are part of the learning and changing process—you’d be a total freak of nature if you didn’t have them.
If you don’t really believe you’ll get what you’re after, work on that. Question your beliefs and assumptions, love yourself more, accept yourself without the thing you want, or email me if you’re really in a blind spot…an objective outsider can make all the difference in changing your perceptions.
Enjoy the journey and you will get where you want in the end. You’ll see it when you believe it, not the other way around.
Join the discussion and tell us your opinion.
I hope this helps you begin to think that way, too…
btw–love your blog!
Thanks for this post, Amy. I have definitely experienced this, especially the total panic that accompanies a set-back. I get so jealous of people who seem to just naturally believe that success is on their path, that the work may be hard but there’s no question they’ll get there.
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